For many people, eating a whole lot of bread is a pretty reliable cure for drinking a whole lot of booze the night before. But for a rare few, carbo-loading can have the same effect as downing a pint or four, thanks to a rare condition called auto-brewery syndrome.
The ability to get plastered off alcohol created by your very own gut might seem like a gift sent straight from Dionysus, but auto-brewery syndrome (also sometimes known as gut fermentation syndrome) is a serious and little-researched disorder.
According to a new SciShow episode that talks about one of the few medically recorded instances of auto-brewery syndrome, in 2010 a 61-year-old man in Texas admitted himself to hospital after complaining of unexplained drunkenness for a full five years. Thankfully his wife, who happened to be a nurse, had been documenting her poor husband's symptoms. She noted that his bizarre intoxication first appeared in 2004, after he received foot surgery and was subsequently prescribed a heavy dose of antibiotics.
According to a case study of the man, "often his blood alcohol percent was as high as...0.40. The legal limit for alcohol in the United States is 0.08 percent." Doctors assumed the man was a closet alcoholic.
Nevertheless, gastroenterologists monitored him in an isolated hospital room for 24 hours, to make sure he couldn't drink without them knowing about it. Throughout that period, doctors fed him carbohydrate-heavy snacks and meals while periodically measuring his glucose levels. As one might guess, at one point, the man's blood alcohol level rose to 0.12 percent per breathalyzer without him having even touched a drink, the study adds.
Here's what happened: The antibiotics the man was prescribed in 2004 after receiving foot surgery wiped out the good bacteria in his gut, allowing yeasts and other intestinal fungi to flourish. Whenever the man ate bread or other carbohydrates, the excess yeast in his digestive system fermented the carbs into alcohol, which ended up in his bloodstream.
The treatment for auto-brewery syndrome, it turned out, was a diet free of sugar and carbohydrates, several rounds of antibiotics, and some regular L. acidophilus tablets to recolonize the gut, according to his case study.
Very few known instances of auto-brewery syndrome have been recorded by doctors. The youngest patient was a three-year-old girl who became intoxicated after having ingested a sugary fruit juice. According to SciShow, Japan has the highest rate of this disorder, possibly due to an enzyme deficiency that disproportionately affects Asians.
So there you have it. Getting wasted off a few slices of bread or a bag of chips is possible, but it likely won't happen to you. And if it does, it's probably not going to be as fun as you think.